Thus has reading wound in with living, each a compliment to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.
Penelope Lively’s How It All Began was just lovely. That’s absolutely the word for it: lovely. It came along when I was craving something relatively straightforward and contemporary, something with human relationships at its center. I fell into its pages and finished it in two days. I also fell in love with some of the characters along the way. It examines the role of a chance encounter in one’s life and how it can have a domino effect outward, changing the lives of relatives and acquaintances in unimaginable ways.
Charlotte has been mugged, and as a result has broken a hip. Retired and independent, she now has to temporarily live with her adult daughter, Rose, and Rose’s husband, Gerry. (Rose describes Gerry like this: “Gerry is fine. Who’d want a husband who would run you ragged?”) Because she has to get her mother settled into her home, Rose misses work for a few days. She’s the assistant to an elderly historian who is forever writing his memoirs; he enlists his niece, interior designer Marion, to help him out temporarily. Marion isn’t able to meet her lover, the already married Jeremy, because she’s helping her uncle. She leaves him a text, which his wife accidentally discovers. Meanwhile, during her recovery, Charlotte tutors an Eastern European immigrant named Anton in reading English, and he and Rose strike up a beautiful friendship. Everyone in the book (a large cast of characters) ends up feeling the ripple effect of the mugging, with chance encounters and disruptions leading to new relationships and opportunities.
This reminded me a bit of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, without the somewhat overbearing narrator. Charlotte is really the center of the book, and she’s a wonderful character. She’s a voracious lifelong reader, and her musings on the reading life felt authentic. She also ponders the indignities of aging and being dependent on others, and reflects on her very happy marriage to Rose’s late father, Tom. She can’t help but compare her marriage to what she observes of Rose’s union with Gerry.
Here are two people who live equably together, and maybe that us as much as anyone can ask. Charlotte is embarrassed to be a witness to this, to be thinking about it. She has never actually lived with Rose and Gerry before, close as she has been to them. And she is aware that these thoughts are prompted because she knows that this marriage is not like her own; it is colorless, by comparison, it lacks the zest, the give and take, the hours of discussion and debate, the hand on the knee, the arm round the shoulder, the silent codes of amusement and of horror. The laughter.
I’ve read three books previously by the prolific Penelope Lively – Moon Tiger and Passing On, both years ago, and more recently, The Road to Lichfield (you can read my review here.) She’s an underappreciated author, I think, at least here in the United States. With the last book of hers I read, and with this one, I came away thinking, “Why don’t I read her more often?” She’s a refreshingly intelligent, observant writer, portraying ordinary people with great skill and compassion. She is less somber than Anita Brookner and less consciously witty than Barbara Pym, but I think if you like either of those authors you would like Lively. I classified this as “Comfort Reading” on my Goodreads shelves, but I’m not altogether sure it’s the right term, now that I think about it. Charlotte’s nuggets of truth about the human condition and the poignancy of a romance (I won’t spoil the plot further) make it feel too real to be totally comforting. Perhaps it would be better placed on my “Life Affirming” shelf – so much of what we experience is due to random chance, but the relationships we hold dear are what carry us above life’s slings and arrows. Lively’s book is a warm and generous reminder of this.